Books

Cover of book: Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes

Rob Wilkins
Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes

Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes feels like a personal memoir about someone else, as if author Rob Wilkins is sharing stories about his time with a dear friend over a pint. It’s also Wilkins’ own story, that of a fan who never quite believes his own luck: working for and befriending beloved comic fantasy author Terry Pratchett.

Wilkins focuses on Pratchett’s journey to becoming a famous novelist. Stories of his early life revolve around inspirations, influences and hobbies. Later chapters peek behind the curtain at what went on in “the Chapel” (Pratchett’s office) and on tour. Wilkins is as frank as Pratchett was about his fury, decline and death following his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease. Have your tissues handy: the book opens with Pratchett’s “so I’m dead” letter to Wilkins.

Much will be familiar to fans from interviews and appearances but Wilkins always has something new to add – often from Pratchett himself, who steals the show with notes for his unwritten autobiography. A few of Pratchett’s anecdotes are debunked, leaving you unsure how much to trust him, but I got the impression Wilkins reveals the truth when it’s more interesting.

There are loads of new stories too, even for Pratchett nerds like me. A particular delight was his brief meeting with Douglas Adams, which is followed by Pratchett’s response to Adams’s death before jumping back to the main narrative, in which Pratchett buys a television to avoid missing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Wilkins frequently time-skips, giving the book a lovely conversational style, but it sometimes leaves you a bit lost about what happened when.

Pratchett novices get enough context to follow along, often via the frequent footnotes. These are a signature of Pratchett’s novels, which Wilkins mostly avoids spoiling. However, if you’ve been intending to read Pratchett’s last book, The Shepherd’s Crown, do so before you get to chapter 20.

But nearly everything here comes back to the work. The Adams section, for instance, sets up how Hitchhiker’s influenced Pratchett to stick with comedy. His family life is largely absent: you won’t learn much about what he was like as a husband or father. And there’s a definite rose tint. Pratchett’s temper and lack of gratitude towards friends and colleagues is mostly shrugged off, with only rare glimpses of how anyone felt about his behaviour.

But the genuine friendship between Wilkins and Pratchett, with all its restrained Britishness, makes the book shine. A Life With Footnotes is a loving tribute and a joyful double act.

Doubleday, 448pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes, Rob Wilkins".

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